Allen Park – Funny thing, momentum. Following a lopsided win over the New England Patriots, the Detroit Lions had a golden opportunity to undo some early-season blunders in Dallas, but Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott happily rained on the Lions’ parade.
That leaves the Lions 1-3 after the first quarter of the season, an unenviable hole in one of the NFL’s most difficult divisions. The team's focus has already shifted to its upcoming matchup with Green Bay, but as is our Tuesday ritual, we scoured the coach’s film from the 26-24 loss to the Cowboys to figure out what’s going right and what’s going wrong for the Lions.
Here are our five observations from the tape:
The Davis Conundrum
The Lions defense was on the field for 69 snaps, but when people reflect on this game, they’re going to remember just one, linebacker Jarrad Davis getting beat on a deep pass by Elliott in the closing minutes, setting up the game-winning field goal.
Let’s get that play out of the way, right away.
First, the Lions had some personnel issues due to injuries, down two defensive backs, Tavon Wilson and Quandre Diggs. So the back seven on the play consisted of five defensive backs — safeties Glover Quin and Tracy Walker and cornerbacks Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and Teez Tabor — and linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Davis.
The Lions were in a Cover-2 shell pre-snap. Slay matched up against Cole Beasley in the left slot, in an effort to take away Dallas’ best receiving threat, while Tabor and Lawson had the outside assignments. Reeves-Maybin was responsible for tight end Blake Jarwin, while Davis was on Elliott in the right slot.
As the play developed, Quin stayed shallow, where he had broken up a pass the previous play, while Walker dropped deep suggesting the Lions were likely in a Cover-1 look. Quin ignored Elliott running a go route, and for good reason, the back had never been targeted 10 or more yards down the field in his career. It makes sense to trust your scouting report.
Quarterback Dak Prescott did a good job with his eyes, keeping them left to hold Walker to that side of the field, before unleashing a perfect pass to Elliott. Davis was a stride behind the entire way and the pass angled Elliott toward the sideline, making a breakup impossible. All Elliott had to do was haul in the difficult over-the-shoulder grab and that was the ball game.
But here’s the thing, for as much as we’ve (fairly) criticized Davis for his coverage woes, he had been surprisingly steady in this department before getting beat by Elliott on the optimal play call.
Davis was generally in the right position overall, and twice made excellent read-and-react plays on throws to the flat, targeting Elliott and Tavon Austin. Davis made open-field stops in both instances, limiting the Cowboys to modest gains of 4 and 2 yards.
Davis also had an excellent pass-rush snap, playing through a read-option look, chasing and hitting Prescott as he released this throw, causing an incompletion in the end zone.
Where Davis struggled, in a surprising and startling continuation of a season-long trend, was against the run. The scheme is designed for him to be the team’s top playmaker in this department, but he’s consistently being eliminated by a blocker, which was often a tight end against Dallas.
Davis' inability to react early and avoid these blocks, or shed them quickly once he’s engaged, is playing a significant role in Detroit’s overall inability to stop the run.
Tate's long scores
Before I get into the breakdown of Golden Tate’s two touchdown catches, it’s worth highlighting Matthew Stafford’s excellent performance in this game. Despite facing more pressure than he has all season, the quarterback completed 24-30 throws.
On those six incompletions, he missed wide twice, including his first throw of the game, had a receiver knocked off his route disrupting the timing of another, was victimized by two drops and threw one away when under pressure.
Now, Tate’s touchdowns.
On the first, the Lions went four wide, with TJ Jones added to the mix, and Theo Riddick in the backfield. That spread look, with a dangerous receiving back, forced the Cowboys into man coverage with two high safeties in support.
Tate was lined up to the right, in the slot, with Marvin Jones out wide to that side. Tate ran vertically, with an outside release while Jones ran a shallow dig. There was an intersection, in an attempt to set a natural screen, that didn't impact the coverage.
Dallas' safety to that side, Xavier Woods, drove down on Jones, leaving cornerback Jourdan Lewis without support on Tate, who broke his route outside at a 10-yard depth, rounding it to come back toward the throw. Lewis lost his footing while trying to mirror, allowing Tate to turn up field and race down the sideline.
With Jeff Heath charging hard to make the stop from the middle of the field, Tate caused the safety to slow his feet by angling back inside. This created the necessary spacing with the boundary to allow the receiver to change directions back toward the sideline and cross the goal line on the long score.
Tate found his way into the end zone a second time late in the fourth quarter, working a classic route combination with Marvin Jones. Lined up side-by-side in the right slot, Jones, the inside man, ran a post pattern. The in-breaking route kept the safety and cornerback to that side toward the middle of the field, freeing up the sideline. Tate took advantage of the open space, running an out-and-up. Stafford did the rest, delivering a perfect throw just over the outstretched arm of Anthony Brown, connecting with his target in stride for the 39-yard score.
A bright spot up front
The Lions are obviously struggling to defend the run. They’re last in the league, allowing opponents to gain 5.3 yards per carry, and for the third time in four games, they allowed a running back to break free for a gain of at least 40 yards. But if there’s one player who has done a consistently good job with their assignments against the run, it’s defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson.
Had I predicted this in May, it probably wouldn’t have been surprising, but Robinson had a rough camp and was a healthy scratch for the season-opener. Given his performance in the three games since, I can’t imagine that happening again.
Robinson understandably saw a big jump his workload against Dallas, and while the team results weren’t great, the rough performance doesn't fall on Robinson. He was steady from the first defensive play of the game, when he shed his blocker to stop Elliott for a 1-yard gain and, by my tally, won his individual matchup six times, resulting in run stops of 2 or fewer yards.
Fellow Alabama product Da’Shawn Hand also had his moments against the Cowboys, but there’s more inconsistency to his game. He delivered some splash plays, including a forced fumble in the fourth quarter, a chase down sack and quarterback pressure in the red zone, but against the run, especially when doubled, Hand is not on Robinson’s level.
Lions drive up Lawrence's price tag
Stafford had been sacked three times through three games entering the contest, but Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence showed why he’ll arguably be the most coveted player on the market, if he reaches it, next offseason.
Lawrence had his way with the right side of Detroit’s offensive line -- anchored by typically solid right tackle Rick Wagner – and that’s not limited to the sacks. The Dallas defensive end had two run stops, limiting gains to 1 yard or fewer, plus he had his face mask grabbed by Wagner when threatening to blow up another.
On Lawrence’s three sacks, one can be directly attributed to Wagner, another to backup guard Kenny Wiggins and the third, a collective failing of the offensive line.
Wagner got beat with a pure speed rush around the outside, three plays before Tate’s second touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Wiggins got worked over on a stunt, when Lawrence slapped the guard’s hands away and went around his outside shoulder on the way to Stafford.
On the third, Lawrence bent around Wagner’s outside shoulder, but was aided by the interior of Stafford’s pocket collapsing, when linebacker Jaylon Smith pushed center Graham Glasgow back on a bull rush, allowing the defense end to finish the job.
On a positive note, the left side of Detroit’s line continued to hold up well. Taylor Decker allowed pressure on one snap and rookie guard Frank Ragnow finished with a clear ledger, continuing to show improvement after some early-season struggles.
Agnew reprises offensive role
With his newfound role on defense, and continued duties handling kickoff and punt returns, it was starting to seem unlikely the Lions would give Jamal Agnew work on offense, like they did throughout last season.
But against the Cowboys, Agnew was on the field twice, for a pair of successful plays.
In the second quarter, he ran a jet sweep, going left to right. The Cowboys appeared alert for the possibility, with both linebackers shifting to the motion, but Agnew’s speed was enough to get him edge. Thanks to solid perimeter blocking by Willson and wide receiver Kenny Golladay, the Lions were able to gain 17 yards on the call.
The Lions utilized Agnew as a decoy in the fourth quarter, running a similar jet motion sweep, but going the opposite direction. Taking advantage of the a similar shift by the linebackers, the handoff went to Kerry Johnson, going right off tackle.
Willson again had a key block, sealing Smith inside, while Marvin Jones, in the slot to that side, provided a downfield block on the cornerback, leaving Johnson one-on-one with the safety. The back opted to plow through the defender, on his way to scoring his first career touchdown.